'Hour of Code' arrives

DORSET - The journey to understanding millions of lines of computer code - all those zeroes and ones arranged in patterns that make sense, maybe, to graduates of advanced technical institutes - starts with an "Angry Bird" chasing down a green pig.

If you're an elementary school-age student taking part in a special "Hour of Code" that will be part of a nationwide initiative known as Computer Science Education Week next week, that's where you might begin. It looks easy enough - arrange a couple of blocks of instructions on the right-hand side of your computer screen and watch your Angry Bird move three steps in one direction and gobble up the nasty looking green pig.

"Angry Birds" is a computer game that millions play on their laptop computers and mobile devices, and they have been marshaled into service to help introduce young students into understanding how these tools of the digital age actually work. Most people are happy when their devices simply work as they are supposed to, without error messages or other snags. But much like an automobile mechanic has to understand what makes a car start and go, computers, tablets and smartphones also run on sets of instructions written in coded language. Developing such code is a burgeoning field of work and employment, with many potentially high paying jobs available, and de-mystifying that for a new generation of students is part of the goal for computer science education week.

Phyllis Tate has been teaching computer science at The Dorset School for the past six years and has a background in writing code from her days as a software programmer and computer consultant to businesses. Her classes will be taking part in next week's emphasis on computer science and its "hour of code," which will be part of the weeklong event.

"Kids are very good on computers but they need to be guided into some of the behind-the-scenes areas," she said during one of her classes this earlier this week in the Dorset School's computer lab. "Once you get them into it, they take off very quickly."

Over at one of the terminals, fifth grader Hannah Wise was pondering today's coding challenge - how to get a dazed looking beetle shaped "zombie" character through a maze to a sunflower, without getting devoured by one of several ugly looking "chompers." If the stack of instructions she cobbles together isn't quite right, it's back to the starting line, she said.

"I'm not really confident this is going to work," she said, while staring intently at the computer screen. "I'm using all the right ones (sets of graphic-based instructions), but not in the right order. So I have to switch the order."

This is harder than it looks. By the time you reach Level 17, which was where Hannah had arrived at, things are more complicated than moving a bird-shaped figure two or three steps in one direction. There's a bit of a maze to negotiate, with left and right turns, and the bad guys lying in wait. But by learning to order the pre-packaged sets of instructions, her zombie figure will get to the sunflower, and along the way, she, her classmates and students across Vermont and the nation, may start to think that they can write these sorts of directions too, to make apps or programs perform tasks for fun and perhaps, a livelihood.

A shortage of computer engineers and those trained in computer science is what is driving the national agenda around STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and computer science education week, said Peter Drescher, the education technology coordinator for Vermont's Agency of Education.

The "hour of code" is part of an effort to strength interest and instruction in computer science, he said, which some may find ironic given how closely integrated and woven together education and computer technology have become. But what actually makes the technology work is one area that has gotten less attention and focus than it should have, he added.

"This is to get us thinking about it again as far as computer science careers," he said. "We're not producing enough kids who are really learning programming language - that's really what this hour of coding is really targeting towards."

Computer instruction has been offered for years at The Dorset School, said Rosanna Moran, the school's principal, who was sitting in on the class this day. Instruction on coding is new this year. When students understand how something works, it makes it more accessible to them, she said.

"So much of what they do is relevant upon using a program," she said. "This gets them into creating their own, which I think is a much deeper level of understanding of what's going on." Over at another terminal near the front of the class, fifth grader Owen McCostis was grappling with the dilemma of how to move his zombie character move up a set of stairs, while arranging his sets of instructions to carry that out. There was a relationship between what he was seeing happening on his screen and those instruction sets, he said.

"You can make it do something, something cool," he said. "Most people, when they play games, they don't realize. . . . they think the computer is just doing it. Here we have to write it. We have to write it to make sure."

Computer Science Education Week will run from Monday, Dec. 9 through Friday, Dec. 15. Many schools around the state will be taking part in it, as well several of the state's technical centers.

Those wishing to try their hand at moving an Angry Bird or a zombie from point A to point B can visit csedweek.org, or code.org, where a series of tutorials, led by people with some credibility in computer science - Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Bill Gates of Microsoft among them - will help you get untracked. It's fun, but the Angry Bird or the zombie needs all the help you can give it, because computers don't think for themselves - not yet, anyway.


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